Kindred

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Genre: let’s call it magical realism

Setting: 1976 and the antebellum South

I read it as a(n): kindle book

Source: my own collection

Length: 287 pp

Published by: Beacon Press (1 June 1979)

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Dana is a modern young Black woman, married to a white man called Kevin, and they are both authors. They have recently purchased their first real home together and are in the middle of unpacking when Dana feels dizzy and falls to the ground. When the dizziness passes, she finds herself outside and hears a child yelling for help. Since Dana isn’t a dick, she rushes to help and ends up saving a young boy named Rufus from drowning. The boy’s father comes across them and, thinking Dana is trying to harm his son, aims a rifle at her. Dana is then transported back to her home, soaking wet and covered in mud from her rescue efforts. 

Over the next few weeks, Dana finds herself inexplicably called back to what she learns is the antebellum South, to a plantation with slaves. Somehow, anytime Rufus is in mortal danger, he pulls her back in time to him, completely unintentionally. Dana learns that Rufus is one of her ancestors and she has to keep saving him until he is able to father the child who is her direct ancestor. Each time Dana goes back, she stays longer and the trip is more dangerous for her. She eventually figures out that when she herself fears for her life, she is able to return to her own time, which is moving more slowly than the past. Dana spends hours, days, and months in the past and yet her own time period only moves forward by a few minutes or days even for her longest period spent in the past. Dana has to learn how to survive in a harsh past, retain Rufus’s trust enough that he doesn’t harm her himself just because he can, and keep her husband Kevin safe during her travels as well. 

This story was a difficult and yet un-put-downable read. Difficult because of the subject matter but a very fast and engaging read. Even though it was written in 1979, there was not actually much reference to technology so it didn’t feel dated. In fact, it could have been written this year and would have been hailed as a timely discussion on race relations and equality, given the ongoing protests surrounding police brutality towards Black people. It was a horrifying read as well because it explores topics such as slavery, which is to be expected from the book’s premise. What was worst, though, was Dana’s thoughts on how easy it can be to become accustomed to injustice. The discussion of racism was deep and explored some of the ways in which it has become institutionalized in America even today. Some scenes reminded me of part of Angie Thomas’s novel The Hate U Give where Starr and her brothers received “the talk” from their parents. Not the sex talk, but the talk about what to do and how to act if and when they are stopped by a police officer. The fact that such talks are considered a necessary part of parenting for so many people is heartbreaking, and Butler’s novel shows readers partly why that has come to be. 

Dana adapted fairly quickly to her new environment, not because she was somehow weak or didn’t resist hard enough, but because she had to adapt or die. Part of the discussion on how quickly Dana had to adapt to slavery conditions was also the sense of mutual obligation between many of the characters. They all tried to look out for each other and take everyone’s well being into consideration, even if it was sometimes to their own detriment. But parents, for example, would do whatever was necessary to spare their children and to keep them with them rather than being sold to different places far away. I can understand that; there is nothing I wouldn’t do to keep my daughter safe with me in those conditions. Despite Dana’s ability to adapt quickly to her new circumstances, she was not spared from being on the receiving end of some awful abuse, and she lived in constant fear of being sold to a plantation further south that was notorious for its truly brutal conditions. A modern person worrying about being sold – if that doesn’t absolutely horrify you, then you must be part of the problem.

Part of the discussion on adapting is, I think, the ways Dana and the other Black characters view Tom Weylin and Rufus. Tom initially appears to be brutal, every bit the worst of the stereotypical slave owner. As the novel progresses, how he is viewed doesn’t change so much to liking him as to seeing how he is more or less a fair man operating within the social constructs of his time period. He is a hard man and sometimes does cruel things, but he is doing what is allowed for him to do and doesn’t really step out of those bounds, as disgusting as they are to our modern sensibilities. Similarly, with Rufus, he seems to grow up to take after his father in most ways, except that he is in love with Alice, and his father never would have loved a slave. Use her body, yes, but love her, no. Dana is able to forgive Rufus for so many wrongs, and he actually seems to do worse things than his father ever did. He makes overt threats to Dana, lies about sending her letters to Kevin when he got trapped in the past, and is a volatile drunk. His father at least never seemed to let himself get out of control like Rufus does. In many ways, Rufus is a pitiable character, largely lacking in understanding, empathy, or willpower. To be fair, though, I’d probably be blind fucking drunk all the time if I had to live in the South at that time of history. In any case, the way Dana and the other Black characters view the Weylins very much makes me think of Stockholm Syndrome. Maybe they were just as awful as one thinks they were but the effect was lessened over the course of the novel by the psychological impact of being held against their will, malnourished, beaten and whipped, and worked until they dropped.

Normally, I don’t care much for first-person perspective in novels. But I think first-person is the only way this novel could be as powerful as it was. If Dana hadn’t been the narrator, if we had a third-person POV instead, it would have created a distance between the characters, events they went through, and the reader; the situations she went through would not have been as visceral an experience for readers and thus the discussions on various issues would not have been as effective.

The title itself is a stark reminder that being related to a person doesn’t always mean they are your family. There’s a big difference between relatives and family. Rufus and Dana are related to one another. They have a sense of mutual obligation to each other, though an admittedly lop-sided one. But they are in no way family as I would define it. So that makes an interesting contrast throughout the book, especially when you consider Dana and her husband’s relationship, and her relationship with the slaves. She seems much closer to them than to Rufus, her actual relative. Similarly, her marriage to Kevin is illegal in the past and, I would imagine, is seen as at least odd in 1976. I don’t think interracial marriages were very well tolerated at the time. 

In any case, this was a terrific read, if difficult at times because of the things that happened to people. I definitely recommend it to any fans of timeslip, sci-fi, magical realism, or antebellum history. 

Catch-Up Round: Book Club edition

122943In the Country of the Young  by Lisa Carey (WEBSITE, TWITTER, FACEBOOK)

Her Grace’s rating:  4.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: magical realism/ ghost story

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 286 pp

Published by: Perennial (1 Oct 2000)

In the late 1800s during Ireland’s Potato Famine, hundreds of Irish immigrated to America and Canada on ‘famine ships.’ One ship, the Tir na Nog, ran aground off the coast of Maine and most aboard died, including a young girl, Aisling. In modern times, artist Oisin MacDara lives an almost hermit life in the woods of Tiranogue Island. He rarely has any contact with other people and the islanders have come to accept him on his own terms. On Samhain night, Oisin lights a candle and leaves his door open, as tradition dictates, and from the mist comes a girl. Oisin had been able to see ghosts and spirits in his youth, but lost the ability when his twin sister died. In all the years since, Oisin has tried to figure out how to bring his Sight back. Now, it seems he is able to See spirits once more, or at least one spirit, who enters his life on Samhain night.

Carey’s novel is a delight. It is atmospheric and gothic, full of Irish myth and tradition. Readers get a sense of disbelief at first when Aisling wanders in out of the shadows, and, very slowly, come to realise the girl is the same as the one who died on the famine ship. As Aisling’s stay with Oisin becomes longer, she begins to grow at an astronomical rate, catching up to her adult self and gaining the experiences she missed out on in life. Oisin reluctantly takes on the role of provider, by turns pleased for and interested in the companionship and resenting her presence in his quiet, solitary life. With the help of an open-minded and trusting neighbor, Deirdre, Oisin is able to give Aisling a lifetime of experiences in what he knows will be the limited time available to her.

The character development here was extraordinary. I loved seeing Aisling’s growth and how she changed from a scared little girl into a self-confident young woman. Oisin, too, changed and grew to accept love and help from others. I identified with him a lot since I am also a very solitary person and don’t trust easily. 

Various themes of loss, mental illness, sexuality, and inflexible social customs made for some very rich discussion during this particular book club meeting.

Favorite part/ lines (potential spoilers!):

  • It’s the same as day turning to night. Your life is like the day, and after death comes, it’s all different – not worse or better, just different – because, as at night, the world no longer looks the same. It’s why twilight is the holy time, when day and night come together, and the living and the dead can meet one another on the road.
  • “It’s wrong to spend your life afraid, Oisin,” she said. “No matter what you see.”
  • What that night became for her was the moment she stepped away from all her definitions and into herself. Suddenly it no longer mattered who she was, only that she was. She stopped editing her thoughts and analyzing her actions. When she looked in the mirror, her brown eyes were tired or angry, often amused, but no longer plain. Beneath the fears and posing, she had been there all along.
  • Doesn’t he know that every minute counts? That waiting is often the same as missing a lifetime?
  • My mom says if you wait for people to read your mind, most of them will hear only your silence. … Which is why I have to tell you something,” Gabe says. … “When I’m old enough to have my first love, I’m going to remember you. Is that okay?”

 

5730888The Unit  by Ninni Holmqvist 

Her Grace’s rating:  3.5 out of 5 stars

Genre: dystopian 

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 268 pp

Published by: Other Press (9 June 2009)

In this dystopian society, when people reach a certain age (50 for women, 60 for men), and have no family or an irreplaceable skill, they are sent to live in ‘reserve banks’, like retirement homes. It is not optional and everyone goes if they didn’t have children in their life. Dorrit Weger dutifully checks into the Second Reserve Bank Unit on her 50th birthday. From there, she makes new friends among the other residents, engages in experiments with new drugs and therapies, and eventually begins making donations as needed and required to the outside community. She and her fellow residents are there to provide their organs to people who need them and who have been deemed of more value to society. 

This was fascinating, if somewhat derivative of many other dystopian novels. As with many books dealing with the lives of women in the future, this society has decided that people who have never had children are ‘dispensable’ and are therefore a perfect group upon which to experiment with new drugs or psychological therapies, forcing them to donate organs to indispensable recipients until they make their final donation, usually their heart or lungs. It is terrifying because I can see something like this happening. What was the most disturbing of all was how quickly the Unit’s residents accepted their fate and even managed to convince themselves that it was for the good. 

It was also just…sad…since Dorrit only found love for the first time once she entered the Unit and it would necessarily be cut short by the practices they are enduring. While I do NOT think one has to have a great love to have a great life or to be complete, it is sad when someone wants that and only finds it at the end of her life. 

There is a lot of material to unpack about what makes a life or a person worthwhile and fulfilled. Why is having children the be all and end all of a person’s worth? It takes no skill at all to have a baby. I always look side-eye at anyone who says having their children was their greatest accomplishment. Really? I LOVE my child but having her took no particular skill on my part. I’m prouder of the things I’ve written, dragged out of my brain by sheer determination, persistence, and force of will, because those things took a lot of effort. Saying this does not mean I am not proud of my daughter. I am proud – of HER accomplishments and the person she is becoming, not of simply having her. See the difference? And who is to say what I accomplish is somehow more important than, say, my friends who have chosen to remain childless? It’s not like we aren’t overpopulated as it is. Humans are like cockroaches. We’re all over the fucking place. It’s just a scary thing to think that people might one day be valued on their ability to reproduce rather than on their actual ability to contribute. 

This was another excellent book for a book club. There were so many things to consider from ethics, love, the value of a human life, and spirit. We had a very lively discussion for this one!

There were many lines that I highlighted while reading this, but the one below sums up everything perfectly for me:

  • “People who read books,” he went on, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.”

The Salt Roads

61nvaeyynml._sl500_The Salt Roads* by Nalo Hopkinson

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 13:15:00

Publisher: Tantor Audio

Year: 2003

This is the story of a fertility goddess, Ezilie, sometimes called Lasiren, and the women whose bodies she possesses. The main point of view characters are Mer, a healer and slave on a plantation on the island of St. Domingue, what is now Haiti; Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mistress of Charles Baudelaire; and Thais or Meritet, a Nubian slave and prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt, who later becomes known as Mary of Egypt. In nonlinear timelines, the narrative follows the lives of these women as Lasiren inhabits and influences them. Mer is tasked with clearing the salt roads, the connections between Haitian slaves and their African gods. She tries to do so through peaceful means, even though a violent rebel called Makandal is rising in power and urging slaves to revolt against white slave owners. Mer knows her duty is to heal all the Ginen people. Jeanne Duval’s narrative focuses more on economic freedom. She is trying to support herself and her mother, who is ill and can’t afford medicine. To do so, she becomes a stage dancer in hopes of catching the eye of a rich man who will take her as his mistress and set her up in comfort so she can care for herself and her mother. Thais’s story comes pretty late in the book overall, but I think it can represent freedom from sexual slavery, since she was a prostitute and relied on that for survival before Lasiren began interacting with her, driving her to wander the desert. Her interactions with Lasiren eventually resulted in her sainthood.

At first, I admit I didn’t quite get this story. I really enjoyed it, but it took a few days of really thinking about it for me to find the threads that bound it together. I really love that, when a story makes me think and I don’t get it right away. Maybe I still don’t have it right, but this is what I’ve come up with. The various forms of freedom are, I believe, the overarching theme. The salt is the common element which binds women around the world together, through blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex.

I really enjoyed the way the lives of these women were linked throughout the story. They were so very different, but they each had their own struggles for freedom which bound them together, and Lasiren teased out their desires and eventually managed to bring comfort to them all, even if it was a long time coming.

Each setting was vivid and complex, containing rich cultural details. I hadn’t known, for example, that Makandal was a real man and that he did actually instigate a rebellion on St. Domingue. I learned as well that the Ginen is the Haitian name for the ancestral home of enslaved Africans, and that it referred to the slaves on St. Domingue. I didn’t know that Charles Baudelaire had a Haitian mistress. I had never heard of Mary of Egypt. Now I have so many new things to read about in more depth because of this book!

The narrator, Bahni Turpin, did a stellar job, as she always does. Her accents really bring the characters to life and she dramatizes the story without being melodramatic. She is one of my favorite narrators.

This is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it and am looking forward to reading more by Nalo Hopkinson.

 

*Amazon affiliate link.

Children of Earth and Sky

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Cover image from Children of Earth and Sky

I’m a big fan of magical realism and what I call near-fantasy, where things are familiar and close but just different enough to make you remember you aren’t actually in your own world. Guy Gavriel Kay is a master of creating this type of world (as are Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link). His newest novel, Children of Earth and Sky, is another example of his creative skill and delightful storytelling ability.

This book creates such a lovely, rich world full of complex and interesting people. Kay’s main characters in this novel are fascinating and multifaceted. He has a wonderful ability to make you get attached to them quickly, which isn’t always a good thing when some of them die right away. Only it is, because it’s awesome when a book gives you the feels right away and DOESN’T FREAKING STOP. The characters are all well rounded and interesting throughout, even the minor characters. You can’t help but care about them, even ones you don’t think you want to care about. Danica, Marin, Pero, Leonora, Neven, they are all vibrant and living people, each with their own path to take, and I genuinely cared about each of them every step of the way.

Kay gives a tale of a quasi-Renaissance Europe that is rife with political turmoil and intrigue, complete with his usual flair for weaving in elements of magical realism. The world he creates is just on the edge of recognition, which I absolutely love about all of his works that I’ve read. I always get the feeling that I’ve been there or studied this in history before, but then he pulls a literary stunt to remind me that I’m actually reading a really well crafted fantasy, like a dead relative cohabiting in someone else’s mind with them. This was the perfect escapism fantasy for me. I want to reread all of Kay’s other novels now!

Trigger Warning

I adore Neil Gaiman. I love his vivid imagery, the subtlety of the stories, the unique way he has of seeing the world. He himself is awesome as well, and is someone I would love to have a beer with. Here is a wonderful interview of Neil on the Diane Rehm show. She is painful to listen to, but thankfully he is not. I loved his discussion about being read to, how adults never get stories read to them anymore and it’s tragic. I agree entirely with his comments that it is odd to put trigger warnings on literature, especially literature for adults.

http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2015-02-19/neil_gaiman_trigger_warning
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The Oracle Glass

When I can’t decide what book to read next, I just go down the alphabet of titles I have. I was on the letter O, and don’t actually have many choices for that one. The Oracle Glass was the next up, so I chose it. I honestly do not remember how I ended up owning this book. It is set in France and not in a time period I typically care at all about. It is magical realism/gothic, which is probably how it got on my TBR list, and an excess of gift money is probably the reason it ended up in my personal library. But I am not too sorry that it did. Read More »

The Night Circus

“Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.”

I am not entirely sure what I think about this book. It was not quite what I expected, though I am not sure what I expected in the first place. The plot was intricate and complex and well executed, though it was a little slow for my taste.  The writing, however, was some of the most lush, vivid, gorgeous that I have ever encountered. That alone was enough to keep me reading.Read More »